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HOV Lanes and Hybrids

Number of Hybrids Doubled Since Last March

Joan Morris
Public Affairs Manager, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)
Friday, January 7, 2005; 11:00 AM

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) plans to recommend today that Virginia do away with the popular exemption for hybrid cars to use HOV lanes. The number of them has nearly doubled since last March and VDOT reports that traffic is suffering.

Joan Morris, public affairs manager for VDOT in Northern Virginia, was online Friday, Jan. 7, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the proposal and how it will affect commuters.


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A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: I thought that the hybrid cars were required to have a clean fuel tag in order to legally be in the HOV lanes without three people. I regularly see at least two hybrids a day which have regular license plates, and the police seem to pay no attention to any vehicle which seems to be a hybrid.
I drive a commuter van, and our trip has definitely grown longer because of all of these single occupant vehicles.

Joan Morris: You are correct that hybrid vehicles MUST have the required clean fuel plate. State police

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Stafford, Va.: As a daily commuter from Stafford, Virginia to Washington, D.C. for the last ten years, I completely agree with the proposal to eliminate the hybrid exemption. My only suggestion is that they eliminate the exemption sooner than next year. The traffic congestion in the HOV has become much worse and will only continue to deteriorate as we wait for this exemption to expire in more than another year. Are there steps that may be taken to eliminate the exemption sooner? Thank you for your consideration.

Joan Morris: Good point. As I mentioned in the intro, the secretaries of several agencies now need to review the recommendations. And, the feds have asked us to develop a report as to how we are going to deal with the increasing congestion. VDOT has to come up with a plan no later than Feb. 28. So the work does not stop with the release of the recommendations.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why not just increase the occupancy level of hybrids to two? I'm not sure if regular occupancy is three but it could be increased too. What we're looking for is increased capacity of passengers on the express lanes.

Joan Morris: That's one of the suggestions the task force made for future consideration. HOV-2 for hybrids OR consider limiting the number of hybrids allowed in the lane OR consider raising the $10 fee for a clean fuel plate to $500. There could be some combination of above.

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Kingstowne, Va.: As a hybrid driver who commutes on I-395 every single weekday, I can attest that any congestion in the HOV lanes (when it rarely exists) is caused by VIOLATORS, not by hybrid drivers.

I paid $3,000 extra for my Honda Civic Hybrid over a comparably equipped Hybrid Civic EX because I viewed it rationally as a way of buying my way onto I-395. The extra gas savings are nice, but I won't make that up unless I keep the car about 13 years, according to Consumer Reports.

The answer to keeping the HOV lanes moving is to CRACK DOWN ON VIOLATORS, not innocent hybrid drivers, who by the way are also helping the environment. Thank you.

Joan Morris: We absolutely agree that violators are a problem. That's why we've increased funding to State Police for HOV enforcement from $140,000 a year to $390,000 a year. The task force also recommends that VDOT create specific enforcement zones that are well lighted and can be safely accessed by state troopers. Also, as of July 1, 2004 we have a much more stringent HOV law which is already making a difference. Violators can be fined up to $1,000 for repeated offenses and -- for the first time -- receive 3 demerit points on their driving record.

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Joan Morris: Good morning! I can already see that there are lots of good questions on the topic of hybrids and HOV lanes. Let me begin by saying that the HOV Task Force has a series of recommendations that will need to be considered by the Virginia Secretaries of Transportation, Natural Resources and Public Safety. The task force has recommended that the current law -- which allows hybrids (with the required clean fuel plates) to use HOV lanes -- expire on July 1, 2006. We've got a lot of work to do with the Federal Highway Administration, the congressional delegation, the general assembly and others before we develop a final solution. We want to hear your thoughts on this issue. The HOV report is available at www.virginiadot.org.

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Franconia, Va.: I own a hybrid. Will I be able to continue using it in the HOV lanes solo after July 1, 2006, or will the exemption expire for everyone? How about grandfathering in anyone who bought a hybrid before, say, Dec. 31, 2003? Any chance of that happening?

Joan Morris: Well, that might be a possibility. Right now, the task force recommendation is that the law not be extended beyond July 2 06 for all hybrids.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Why not change the morning HOV hours to a more realistic 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m? At 6 a.m. the lanes are congested with regular traffic, way too many single occupant vehicles for law enforcement to deal with. At 8:30 a.m. the lanes are almost empty. Moving the times ahead by 1/2 would be more realistic.

Joan Morris: The task force recommended - and VDOT will be looking at - the morning and evening hours on I-95. So that's a possibility.

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Arlington, Va.: I thought the policy reason for HOV lanes in the first place was to reduce air pollution caused by traffic. If so, how can double the number of fuel sipping, super ultra low-emission hybrid vehicles be a policy problem?

Joan Morris: Because of the impact the number of hybrid vehicles is having on the HOV lanes. Last spring we counted 480 hybrids in the HOV lanes - that increased to 1,700 in Oct. That accounts for 18 percent of the HOV traffic on the HOV lanes.

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Fairfax, Va.: Ms. Morris, today's article did not mention hybrid counts on I-66, either inside or outside the Beltway. If hybrids are creating congestion on I-395, are they also doing so on I-66, and what are the numbers? Would officials consider keeping the exemption on I-66 up to or past 2006 if they are not a problem there?

Thanks for the chat!

Joan Morris: I-66 is not has big a problem as I-95. We counted about 300-350 hybrids on 66 this past fall. Last spring there was no problem on 95 so we need to watch 66 carefully.

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washingtonpost.com: Virginia Department of Transportation

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Woodbridge, Va.: Why don't the police enforce the 'clean fuel' license plate law for hybrids? I see dozens every day with regular license plates. Doesn't the law state that 'only hybrids with clean fuel plates' are allowed on the HOV?

Joan Morris: Police have stepped up enforcement considerably - and they are enforcing the clean fuel plate requirement. In the past 18 months, they've issued 18,000 tickets - that's considerably higher than previous years.

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Atlanta, Ga.: We have HOV (2 passengers) in Atlanta, which I use for my commute, but I have not seen an increase in hybrid cars traveling in the HOV lanes here. In fact, I don't see many at all. Why do you think the D.C. area has seen this increase in hybrids? Do your dealers market them more aggressively than other areas of the country? Just curious.

Joan Morris: Good question. Apparently Virginia is number 2 in the nation in hybrid car sales. Does Atlanta allow hybrids in their HOV lanes?

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Springfield, Va.: Could you clarify something on the HOV laws? The law says that if you are anywhere in the HOV lanes during the restricted time without the required number of people (assuming no exemption), you are violating the law and can be ticketed. How does that work if you get on in Springfield at 5:55 a.m? There are no exits before the Pentagon, so technically you entered legally but then were in there illegally. If the answer is "don't get in the HOV lanes," isn't that a de facto extension of the HOV hours?

The reason for my question is that we had a spirited debate about this on the slug forum some months back and there was a split of opinion. (I guess you can tell I think the person doing this is using the lanes legally; much of the slug community disagreed, but many of those folks want 24-hour HOV restrictions anyway)

Joan Morris: Here's the short answer: do NOT enter the HOV lanes at 5:55 a.m. because you will get a ticket as soon as the clock strikes 6 a.m. Police used to give motorists a break on this issue but when the lanes began getting clogged a couple of years ago, they cracked down.

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Springfield, Va.: According to the Virginia law that permits hybrids only the Prius and Civic are approved for HOV use. Wouldn't the law have to be amended to allow new hybrids?

Joan Morris: Right now if you are eligible for a clean fuel plate from DMV, you can use the HOV lanes. My understanding is that only the new honda accord hybrid is not eligible BUT check with DMV!

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Centreville, Va.: I own a Toyota Prius which I drive every day from Centreville into D.C. Every day, I see HOV violators, consisting of non-hybrid cars with one driver, trucks, and commercial vehicles. I really don't think that the hybrid cars are to blame for all of the traffic jams. Why isn't there more enforcement on the violators before taking away the privilege for the hybrid drivers.

Joan Morris: We are not "blaming" the hybrids - the problem is that they've been too successful. We continue to have a problem with violators and state police, as I've mentioned, have stepped up enforcement considerably over the past year and a half.

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Arlington, Va.: I have to disagree about I-66 not being as big a problem as I-95. I routinely count as many as a dozen HOV violators, hybrids or not, in a matter of minutes on a daily basis. That stretch of I-66 between the Beltway and D.C. seems to be a total haven for HOV violations, especially inbound.

Joan Morris: Remember too, that if you are traveling to or from Dulles Airport, you are permitted to use the HOV lanes on 66 inside the Beltway. That's another issue that needs to be addressed because it makes enforcement difficult. And a lot of those folks "going to the airport" are simply cutting through the airport property in order to use the HOV lanes.

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Anonymous: The Post article mentioned "slugs" -- folks who line up at arranged points for a free ride in the HOV lanes. Some people seem to think slugs are more deserving of the HOV lanes than hybrid owners who pay a premium to invest in clean, fuel-efficient transportation.

They couldn't be more wrong. Slugs do about as much good for traffic congestion as their counterparts do for vegetable gardens.

Slugs clog evening rush-hour traffic. Every other block of 14th Street has a slug line; each one stops traffic, compounding vehicle air pollution. Slug lines also pose a safety hazard because drivers who aren't picking up slugs try to change lanes in the middle of heavy traffic.

If Virginia is serious about reducing air pollution and encouraging fuel efficiency, it will continue to allow hybrids on the HOV lanes.

Higher fines and more enforcement against HOV cheaters (who far outnumber hybrid owners), will keep HOV lanes moving. Don't punish environmentally friendly hybrid owners.

Joan Morris: Let's agree to disagree. VDOT loves slugs - everyone that slugs is helping reduce congestion as well as air pollution. Violators continue to be a problem and the crackdown continues and has been somewhat successful - we still have a way to go.

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Manassas, Va.: Has the state considered a compromise solution, such as allowing hybrid vehicles one less passenger than other HOVs (e.g., HOV-2 in an HOV-3 lane)? That would retain an incentive for their purchase and use, but reduce congestion building up in the HOV lanes. Also, shouldn't there be a minimum fuel economy or emission standard? It seems ridiculous to offer HOV exemptions to a large SUV, just because it's mileage is 10-15 percent more than other large SUVs.

Joan Morris: Implementing HOV-2 or 3 for hybrids is a possibility that will be looked at. Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality is, I believe, looking at the issue of standards.

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"Clean" plate: OK, I drive a hybrid, and it does NOT have the clean fuel plates -- I commute in -- very rarely -- from another state that does not have those plates. I've never been pulled over, but I'd protest the ticket if it ever happens. The exemption is for the fuel efficient car, not the metal plate attached to it. I would be more than happy to pay for a sticker, if Virginia requires it.

Joan Morris: The code of Virginia states that you must have a "clean fuel plate" to use the HOV lanes.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Ms. Morris, you are incorrect concerning clean fuel plates for hybrids. The are eligible, but not necessary. The law specifically mentions that the Prius and Civic hybrids are permitted to use the HOV lanes. It does not require the plates to use them.

Joan Morris: The Code dealing with HOV and the exemptions does not mention specific vehicles.

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Stafford, Va.: This all seems to be so much tempest in a teapot and people whining about their commutes. The sad reality is that there is not a comprehensive program to relieve congestion in the area, which would involve much better public transit. It takes two hours to take the train from Stafford, or one hour by car. So, I can commute for 4 hours or 2 each day. Not much of a debate.

If we are going to have cars, we should have low emission/high- efficiency cars rewarded. This includes the opportunity to use the HOV lanes. We don't all have the option of carpooling because of work schedules, etc.

Joan Morris: You make good points. The HOV lanes have typically offered a great time-savings -- the trip from Route 234 on 95 to DC took about 29 minutes compared to over an hour in the regular lanes. That's what we want to preserve -- the ability to move more people in fewer vehicles.

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Alexandria, Va.: To answer the person from Arlington, aren't the HOV lanes about moving more PEOPLE, anything after that like fewer emissions and less congestion on the main lines are just gravy? Many people don't seem to understand that it is about moving more people not vehicles.

Joan Morris: You are so right!

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Dumfries, Va.: I own Honda Civic GX powered exclusively by natural gas. It is not a hybrid or bifuel/flex fuel vehicle. I acquired this vehicle four years ago and it appeared to me at that time that the GX satisfied the spirit and intent of the clean fuel vehicle exemption as it was written in the mid-1990s. I have not had time to read the study, but does it address whether a repeal of the exemption would apply to ALL clean fuel vehicles, or only hybrids?

Joan Morris: The recommendation is to not extend the exemption for all clean fuel plates.

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Washington, D.C.: The use of cameras similar to those used at traffic signals and by some police to detect speeding seems like an obvious way to ticket HOV violators. Several cameras would likely be needed to take photos of a car from several directions to determine how many occupants are in the car, but it seems like a workable approach, certainly much better than pulling over a driver on an already crowded highway. Has this been considered?

Joan Morris: This has been discussed by the HOV task force. Don't know that the technology is there yet for actually seeing how many people are in a vehicle - especially when it is dark.

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Woodbridge, Va.: I have to say that it's amusing we're all complaining about something that was called a good thing. It's like we have too much of a good thing now, with so many people using it. HOV and the hybrid exemption were all meant to reduce resources use, move more people faster, and look how the entire carpool/vanpool/slugline/commuter bus/commuter train culture has exploded. We all saw it was a good idea, and went with it. Now we're complaining because too many people are going with it. Who would've thunk it?

Joan Morris: Your're right. In the year 2000 when hybrids were first permitted into the HOV lanes, there was certainly capacity available. The number of hybrids and HOV-3 vehicles keep growing.

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Herndon, Va.: I often hear that a significant portion (20-30 percent) of cars in the HOV lanes are cheaters. Wouldn't it be better to enforce the existing law and see if that reduces the HOV lane congestion before penalizing hybrid drivers who are playing by the rules?

Joan Morris: As I answered earlier, police have ramped up enforcement. We're giving them $390,000 this year to enforce the lanes - that's up from $140,000 a year. State Police are not letting up on enforcement - they are committed to getting those violator numbers down.

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Haymarket, Va.: Instead of the ridiculous electronic signs that remind those of us who travels daily on Route 66 that there are delays ahead, why not post telephone numbers or e-mail addresses to encourage people to sign up for carpools?

Joan Morris: I don't think we want to encourage folks dialing on their cell phones while driving. We do have signs along 95, 395 and 66 with "call 1-800-745 RIDE for carpool information."

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Spare me: So, let me see if I get this straight? Because too many evil, vile people are buying small fuel efficient cars, we need to get them off the HOV lanes.

But if you just must be one of the huge number of people tying up 1.5-2 car lengths in your Imperial Canyonero SUV, with the built in pool in back, you're okay? Unlike the hybrids, these useless behemoths hose over everyone, take up twice the amount of road space as a sane car -in all lanes-, and are one of the major sources of clogging up our roads. Simple math folks ... we have limited surface area, so when vehicles eat up double the space you have problems.

Yet I hear no one ever bring this up.

Joan Morris: You are very funny. I hate it when the hot tub in the back of my SUV splashes when I drive in the HOV lane.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why should mothers driving their infants to daycare be allowed to use the HOV lanes? Shouldn't this time period in HOV be reserved solely for people commuting to work -- not parents who take advantage of the 2-person rules?

Joan Morris: You are not alone in that sentiment. However, how can you define adults only? Are we going to have police "card" kids?

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Downtown D.C.: You folks currently allow hybrids to travel on HOV lanes but what about other high mileage vehicles like light-duty diesel? My VW TDI gets almost the same gas mileage as a Prius and was purchased because I, too, am concerned about economy and impact on the earth.

Should the government be picking technology winners?

Joan Morris: It's about emissions as well as gas mileage. Department of Environmental Quality makes that determination.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Couldn't you post a phone number for HOV users so call to report violators, similar to the signs posted to report aggressive drivers?

Joan Morris: You know we did that about 15 years ago - it was called the HERO program and folks were able to report violators. It was a victim of budget cuts after a couple of years. It's something that could be re-visited.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Ms. Morris: Could you specifically address the question of eliminating the exemption prior to 2006? It was asked earlier but your answer did not seem to address that.
Is there at all a possibility that the exemption could be repealed prior to the Jul 2006 expiration? Thanks

Joan Morris: The General Assembly which goes into session next week would have to introduce/pass legislation for it to happen before july 2006. Contact your delegate or senator!

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Alexandria, Va.: If the goal is to move people and reduce congestion on the HOV lanes, why not just increase the requirement to HOV-4?

Joan Morris: That's always a possibility! 395 and 95 and 66 were all HOV-4 back in the early 80s.

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Joan Morris: Thanks everyone - your questions have been great and I've enjoyed this opportunity. We will keep you posted and do visit www.virginiadot.org to review the report! Stay safe, Joan Morris

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washingtonpost.com: Virginia Department of Transportation

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